Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Days of misery and discord

Misery: my own. I’ve been sick recently, sick with some kind of indecisive infection that can’t settle on a consistent pattern of symptoms – instead it tries out a new set every couple days. Today’s not so bad: I’ve got a low-grade fever, heavy tired aches and the remnants of congestion that haven’t been flushed out yet. Two days ago I had only a deep fatigue; the day before, a higher temperature; the two days previous I felt more or less normal; and before that, I had the symptoms of a common cold.

Unfortunately, being sick here means putting up with more than just the symptoms. I’ve been fortunate in that the past week’s skies have been fairly overcast, meaning I haven’t had to deal with the heat of the day exacerbating my fevers. What I have had to put up with are the bugs.

Mosquitoes don’t really bother me – on the rare nights when they’re a major problem, I mostly get bitten just on the feet. It’s the other insects that make some nights sheer torture, and the worst are the rice flies.
I don’t know what they’re really called – I just call them “rice flies” because they tend to congregate around rice fields. I remember riding my bike at dusk and getting mouthfuls of them as I passed by flooded rice paddies; when I’d get home from my ride, my face would be covered in the fly-bits that stuck to my sweat. The flies are tiny and delicate, and I suspect that I’m allergic to something about them because I tend to get sneezing fits when they arrive.

They swarm around lights and cover the walls. To misdirect them, I usually keep my bedroom light off and turn on a light somewhere else. It doesn’t matter much. As soon as all the lights are off and I’m trying to sleep, I feel their tiny bodies alighting on any exposed skin.

It’s not a comfortable situation: in order to sleep I have to be cool, but to be cool I usually have to forgo sheets; and if I forgo sheets, the flies keep me awake with their maddening dances across my flesh. I have a mosquito net, but the flies are small enough to get through – and in any case, the netting blocks my fan and keeps me from cooling down enough for slumber. The result is that, on fly-swarming nights, I sometimes lie awake for hours before I’m cool enough to pull a sheet over me and block the bugs. And that’s only if the power stays on. All part of the fun.

Discord: the greater world’s, apparently. What’s this nonsense about an American pastor threatening to burn the Qur’an on the anniversary of 9/11? He may have called off the conflagration in the end, but Terry Jones is still a fear-mongering bigot of the worst, and most ridiculous, order. His goofy stunt only exposes his own ignorance and prejudice, not to mention cowardice.

On one hand, it’s perhaps lamentable that Jones received the media attention which he no doubt craved. On the other, it’s nice to see pretty universal criticism, including from the US president, the Vatican, and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who earlier upheld the legality of building a mosque/Islam cultural center near Ground Zero in Manhattan.

The saga of the mosque shocked me, not because I figured everyone would be okay with it, but because I discovered that a majority of Americans were opposed to the construction. Putting aside the well-discussed fact that those involved have every right to build their center where they want, the whole ordeal exposes the  fierce exclusionism that seems to characterize a nation which simultaneously and paradoxically takes pride in its motley origins. I’m not one to get sentimental over bits of chiseled stone, but remember the Statue of Liberty? Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Okay, so that has never exactly represented the US’s immigration policies, but it’s still an important ideal.

Yearning to breathe free. Luckily for modern Americans, that phrase is nicely ambiguous. We talk, we Americans, about freedom. A lot. It’s in our anthem, which rhapsodizes on the “land of the free.” It’s on our most widely recognized monument. It has been a means for mobilizing troops and citizenry for war, both legitimate and il-, since the birth of the country. And it has never been entirely true, or even close.

You might argue that one of the US's liberties is freedom of speech, and that Jones had every right to burn whatever book he chooses to burn. Absolutely true, and any forced repression of that right would be a grievous offense. But freedom doesn't just have to be about laws. It's also about things that can't be put to paper.

I recognize that I, as an American, do benefit from more freedoms than the vast majority of people around the world. That is a testament to the people before me who have defended those liberties, and the prescience of certain leaders who have dedicated themselves to their protection.

But it is also true that, as a Caucasian American from a Christian background, I benefit from more freedoms than most of the citizens of my own country. The US prides itself on being multiethnic and diverse, and it is. But those diversities too often exist on different planes, and the idealism of our rhetoric is often betrayed by the realities – realities like inflaming hatred against innocents who subscribe to a different theology than the American norm.

It’s not enough to allow Muslims to build cultural centers, or allow immigrants from poor countries to cross our borders for better prospects, or allow ourselves to feel magnanimous for doing the bare minimum. Until we respect diverse peoples and diverse ways, the country’s ideals will be no more than that, and any nationalistic preaching about our freedoms will be little more than hyperbole.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are really naive.